"I think people recognize that something's not quite right with traditional funerals," said Joe Sehee, a former Jesuit lay minister who founded the Green Burial Council in 2002. They regulate practice and educate the public on the green options available. "There's a paradigm shift which is about to take place in this field. We're in a really interesting period because people have the ability to really change things and that doesn't happen very often," he said.
"Consumers know what they don't want. They know they don't want the funeral they saw their grandmother have: very formal, very stuffy, very clinical," explained Darren Crouch, president of Passages International, a green funeral product service. The use of biodegradable materials also substantially lowers funeral costs. "The products we produce are soft, warm and have rounded edges so they have a very different feel to traditional funeral products, which tend to be cold and heavy marble or metal."
Cunningham steers families looking to "green up" cremation toward innovative organizations such as Eternity Reefs, based on the Florida coast. They work to enhance ocean ecosystems by mixing the ashes of the deceased into environmentally friendly reef ball formations. Dropped onto the ocean floor, they encourage the growth of coral and sea life. "We have numerous examples of people scheduling dive expeditions and boating excursions to visit their loved one’s reef," said George Frankel, the CEO of Eternal Reefs. "In fact, we know of entire families who learned to dive so they can participate."
Injecting some imagination into the burial process has produced some scientific innovations. Harvard-educated artist and environmental researcher Jae Rhim Lee is cultivating a breed of "infinity mushroom." The sci-fi sounding fungi can decompose bodies, absorb toxins, and deliver natural compost back into the soil. She gave a TED talk in the U.K. dressed in a prototype of what she has named "the mushroom death suit," a shroud infused with the mushroom spores. It looks like a pair of "ninja pajamas," according to Lee. But as well as speeding the breakdown of the dead body, the mushrooms will also absorb accumulated pollutants such as preservatives, pesticides, and heavy metals. "I imagine the infinity mushroom as a symbol of a new way of thinking about death," said Lee, as she entreated the audience to take responsibility for their impact on the planet. "By trying to preserve our bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further harm the environment."
But attempting to spark an environmental paradigm shift doesn't come without controversy. One green burial practice generating debate is Alkaline Hydrolysis, or "Resomation." It’s being touted as the more eco-friendly version of cremation. Currently legal in only seven states, it involves dissolving the body in acid under high pressure. After reducing the corpse to a syrupy, brown mixture, most of the liquid is then drained off and the remains collected. The idea of loved ones being "flushed" into the sewage system has raised eyebrows and ethical concerns in the US. European markets, on the other hand haven't been deterred, praising the environmental benefits and the lower costs of the procedure.
"Everyone has their own personal preference," said Cunningham. "Some people really don’t like the idea of the body disappearing into the soil and they're fighting it in every single way. But why use a lot of energy to make the body's own energy potential inert?"